Seven years after The College Dropout, the specter of Kanye West’s opus looms large over the rap landscape. He’s put out better albums in the intervening years – arguably, his stunning sophomore set Late Registration – but Dropout was the game-changer. Never has Kanye’s notorious inward focus been quite as breezy and flippant, nor his boasts as tempered with something like genuine humility; and if Late Registration is a big-budget, melodramatic epic, Dropout was the winning indie comedy from a first-time director, stylish but unpretentious. This would all be apropos of nothing if it weren’t for two things: 1. First-timer Big Sean blatantly channels The College Dropout on his debut platter, Finally Famous, and 2. Kanye is the Jay-Z to Big Sean’s… well, Kanye, a mentor that throws his considerable heft behind a young, hungry talent.
“Finally famous in this,” Sean intones on the somber, sung intro, and it’s clear that’s his thesis statement; the young emcee who once nervously hit Mr. West with 16 bars in a desperate attempt to get signed is focused on what it feels like to make it, to see his dream finally crystallize. He’s fairly ecstatic about this, genial and comfortable on the mic, pleasantly rapping about girls and cars and weed, for the most part; but he always sounds pleasant and happy, rarely marred by angst or aggression, pleased with himself for a number of reasons, chiefly, success and a way with a punchline. (Shadows of ‘Ye again, who remains fond of punchlines to this day.)
If it all sounds typical, well, don’t check out yet – sure, innovation is far from a selling point on Finally Famous, but it carries with it a certain fresh-air factor that many of Sean’s contemporaries lack. Sean and Chris Brown go minor-key for first single “My Last” – it’s lean and smooth (like Kanye’s “Heard ‘Em Say,” sorta), and Sean makes success sound not like something to dive into with frenzied abandon, but something to be savored, appreciated. “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” is Sean’s big Drake moment – sensitive, teen-diary stuff, sure, but thorny enough that when he delivers the line “I wish you were ugly” in the chorus, the context lends it some real bite. And when he (and legendary producer No I.D., naturally) wants to, Sean can deliver a true moment: the giddy, randy “Marvin & Chardonnay” is hands-down the most infectious track here (shades of Big Boi’s horn-heavy Speakerboxxx album with verses peppered with cavernous tuba blatts), John Legend lends a big, John Legend-y chorus to the reflective piano-pop of “Memories (Part II),” and the Wiz Khalifa and Chiddy Bang-assisted “High” sidles comfortably next to the best moments of his mentor’s Graduation in both its irrepressible quirk and ability to soar in its best moments (in fact, that sampled “high… high… high…” sounds an awful lot like “flashing…. lights”, come to think of it). Even Sean’s club track, “Dance (A$$)” benefits from Sean’s lithe, uncharacteristically swift flow and a wonderfully bizarre MC Hammer sample, even as Sean waxes single-minded. (His position on ass? He’s for it.)
Feather-light though it may be, Finally Famous never truly lacks in sheer spirit and energy. It’s derivative, sure – a little Drake here, a little B.o.B there, and plenty of Kanye everywhere – and Sean lacks lyrical polish, but as a breezy, thoroughly entertaining summer-rap album, Finally Famous should have some legs. Perhaps on future outings, reviewers will be able to tone down references to Sean’s mentor – seriously, there’s like twenty in this review alone – but even if he doesn’t escape that shadow for awhile, surely the next-best thing is following Yeezy’s career trajectory. As it stands, “So Much More” is a fine revamp of College Dropout‘s gleeful “Last Call” – bound to rustle up dorm-room nostalgia for an entire generation – and we should be expecting Sean’s very own Late Registration next.